‘Vicious cycle’: Children with autism more likely to be absent from school, report finds

Cllr Sophie Conway was chairing the scrutiny committee that heard from local parents. Photograph: Hackney Labour

Children with autism are more likely to be persistently absent from school in Hackney, an independent report has found.

Hackney Independent Parent Carer Forum (HiP) surveyed people whose children are impacted by emotionally-based school avoidance (ESBA) as part of an investigation into the growing problem.

Eighty-three per cent of respondents said their child had been diagnosed with autism.

When presenting their findings to the council, HiP disclosed that more than two thirds of these children also had another diagnosis of neurodiversity and/or mental illness.

ESBA is a term used when children and young people experience challenges in attending school due to emotional factors.

It can lead to persistent absence, which is defined as missing over 10 per cent of school.

Dr Lesley French stressed to councillors at a scrutiny meeting this week that ESBA has its base in “anxiety and fear” and is not about “skiving or truancy”.

There are currently no statistics for the total number of children who are regularly absent from school due to ESBA in Hackney.

However, it is a growing phenomenon nationally, with persistent absence more than doubling since the outbreak of Covid.

According to an article published in the Guardian, 17 percent of primary school children, and almost a third of secondary school pupils, missed more than 10 per cent of school in 2022/23.

Rachel de Souza, children’s commissioner for England, calculates that of the 1.6 million children persistently absent during the autumn and spring of 2021/22, 818,000 were off for reasons other than the usual childhood illnesses.

Many of these absentees are vulnerable. Children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) and children on free school meals are disproportionately more likely to be persistently off.

In Hackney, 95 per cent of parents surveyed by HiP have a child with special needs and almost half said their child is in receipt of free school meals.

According to the report, most parents said their child was persistently absent from school because they are not receiving appropriate support, and two thirds reported feeling ignored by their school.

Tim Linehan, from HiP, told councillors that “at critical points, there are weaknesses”. He cited the disconnect between a parent’s and a school’s ability to identify and manage a child’s needs.

“The most common observation from school was that there were no problems, whereas only four parents said they saw their child present no symptoms of emotional distress when faced with going to school,” he explained.

HiP’s research found that even if the school attempts to make adjustments for children absent due to ESBA, they often fall short, with only 11 per cent of parents believing their child is receiving all the support they need.

The prevailing sentiment from parents was that schools do not know how to accommodate for pupils with autism.

“My son has a caring and loving teacher. However, I believe her lack of deep knowledge of autism makes the situation really hard both for my son but also herself,” one commented.

Yvonne Wade, principal education psychologist for the Town Hall, assured councillors that the Autism Education Trust offers “comprehensive and extensive training for schools to support those presenting needs as well as those with an official diagnosis”.

Theoretically, the training means the “majority of autistic children can have their needs met with the right environment in mainstream schools”.

However, HiP found that persistently absent children, especially those without or yet to receive a diagnosis for a neurodiverse condition or mental illness, are often punished by schools for behavioural issues rather than being given appropriate support.

Over half of parents surveyed said that their school had used a behavioural management method to discipline their child. Half said their child had been given a detention; 38 per cent said their child had been excluded; 30 per cent said they had been given behaviour points; 27 per cent said schools suggested or organised a managed move; and 23 per cent said that the schools had used isolation rooms.

In Hackney, there is a backlog of 500 children waiting to be diagnosed with autism, with a current wait time of up to a year and a half.

The report shows it is often these children without a diagnosis who are punished for their behaviour, which only exacerbates a child’s EBSA.

“Whenever I managed to get [my son] in, they punished him for truancy, underachieving and defiance, which in turn makes him not want to go in. It was a vicious cycle,” said one parent.

Meeting chair Cllr Sophie Conway expressed concern over the treatment of children with autism who are impacted by ESBA, saying: “We’re only as good as the worst-performing child in Hackney.”

Cllr Conway challenged Wade over the effectiveness of the Autism Education Trust’s training.

“It’s a work in progress. It’s early days,” Wade replied.

“Adjustments are difficult for schools,” she continued, explaining that they are “balancing meeting and delivering the needs for every child with pressures from national government to perform academically and climb league tables” with a lack of sufficient funding.

Hackney Education is working to improve support pathways for children off school due to ESBA, but there is no specific project tailored towards combatting ESBA among children with autism.